What is self-efficacy?

How can learning about seemingly complicated subject be so beneficial? What are some ways to boost self-efficacyand what are the advantages? In writing this article, I discovered that there's a lot more value to understanding this topic than I realized at first.

Once again, I began by writing as much as I could think of about the subject for 25 minutes. To be honest, I had trouble coming up with ideas. Let's start with the top-of-my-head definition:

It's a term (often used in scientific research but also more generally) that means a person considers themselves competent at performing a task.

This time I wasn't too far off the mark. Two words are key: "considers" and "competent.". In reviewing the several definitions I found in my notes, I found that nearly all of them used synonyms for "consider": believe, conviction, confidence. Note that my verb choice wasn't strong enough. I neglected to draw the strong connection between self-efficacy and belief.I probably should also mention that Albert Bandura is credited with coining and refining the concept of self-efficacy.

Others also used the word competent. Additionally, they used words such as abilities, succeed, and accomplish. Ultimately, self-efficacy boils down to believing that the effort one puts into a task will achieve the desired results. Basically, it quantifies the concept of "believing in yourself," at least as far as your abilities are concerned.

I also wrote, "Global self-efficacy is when you consider yourself competent to handle all or most of the challenges and assignments in life." I think I got the concept right, but usually people say "general" rather than "global." For example, generalized self-efficacy is the belief that one is capable of succeeding at nonspecific (or global) tasks.

I believe it's similar to self-confidence, but on the other hand it focuses more on competence than, say, belief in one's worthiness or suitability for the job. In my view, it simply relates to whether you have the necessary abilities, knowledge, and/or wisdom to complete the task properly and effectively.

Compare what I wrote with an article I found in my notes, which explains that while self-efficacy specifies a capability level and the strength of belief in it, self-confidence does not. There is a lot more information in the article, written by Gabriel Lopez-Garrido, that I'll also include in this post.The author of this article is a 20-year-old Harvard student. It's well written and well-researched. Quite impressive really.

Why is this subject worth consideration?

Here's the paragraph I wrote about reasons for considering this topic. It's a bit anemic but it covers the bases:

We are inclined to seek success and avoid failure, so we are happier doing things we feel competent at or good at.  A person with low self-efficacy may feel defeated and avoid the activity in the future. A person with low global self-efficacy will likely suffer low self-esteem, and they may give up on their goals, dreams, and aspirations, thinking they are out of their reach.To learn more about my research on self-esteem, start with More Powerful Than Thinking Positive.

Lopez-Garrido's words agree with mine, but with more zing:

People who have a sense of self-efficacy bounce back from failure; they approach things in terms of how to handle them rather than worrying about what can go wrong.

There are, however, many more reasons to consider this topic. Here are a few I found in my notes:

  • Generalized self-efficacy is measure of one's ability to deal with life's challenges.I italicized the text simply to emphasize its importance. From Judge, T. A. (2009). Core Self-Evaluations and Work Success. In Current Directions in Psychological Science (Vol. 18, Issue 1, pp. 58–62). SAGE Publications. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8721.2009.01606.x 
  • When people believe they can successfully carry out healthy habits, they are more inclined to adopt them.Lopez-Garrido
  • Middle-aged and older adults who believe they are capable of becoming their most valuable selves report greater levels of positive well-being and, more significantly, lower levels of negative well-being.Dark-Freudeman, A., & West, R. L. (2016). Possible Selves and Self-Regulatory Beliefs. In The International Journal of Aging and Human Development (Vol. 82, Issues 2–3, pp. 139–165). SAGE Publications. https://doi.org/10.1177/0091415015627666 
  • It is possible that considering the suffering of others and generating the desire to alleviate it can lead to less worry by increasing one's locus of control and self-efficacy.Jazaieri, H., McGonigal, K., Jinpa, T., Doty, J. R., Gross, J. J., & Goldin, P. R. (2013). A randomized controlled trial of compassion cultivation training: Effects on mindfulness, affect, and emotion regulation. In Motivation and Emotion (Vol. 38, Issue 1, pp. 23–35). Springer Science and Business Media LLC. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-013-9368-z 
  • People who believe themselves to be worthy and capable of coping with life's challenges bring a "positive frame" to the events and situations they encounter, whereas those who don't believe that they are worthy or capable bring a negative frame.Judge, T. A., Locke, E. A., Durham, C. C., & Kluger, A. N. (1998). Dispositional effects on job and life satisfaction: The role of core evaluations. In Journal of Applied Psychology (Vol. 83, Issue 1, pp. 17–34). American Psychological Association (APA). https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.83.1.17 

What I've learned

It surprised and disappointed me that I forgot about the connection between self-efficacy and beliefs and motivation. After all, I've written about those connections before. Still, making connections is not always sufficient to retain them. It once again convinced me that testing my knowledge is essential. I am now more likely to remember these connections in the future.

Motivation is often linked to self-efficacy in the literature, but at this point it seems to make much more sense to me. Self-efficacy, the belief that one can produce the desired result, is a key to motivation. It is also connected to control. Those with low self-efficacy believe they have little control over their circumstances, and vice versa. Of course it's hard to get motivated when you don't have any control over what you're doing.

Here's another element where I fell far short of covering all the bases. I tried to list as many connected concepts as I could from memory:

Self-esteem, self-confidence, aspirations, success, failure

From just my notes, here are all the other related concepts I could come up with:

  • Motivation
  • Beliefs
  • Well-being
  • ControlJudge et al., (1998 - see above) defined generalized self-efficacy as one's estimates of one's capabilities to mobilize the motivation, cognitive resources, and courses of action needed to exercise general control over events in one's life. Whether motivation or self-efficacy comes first seems like a chicken-and-egg problem, but the control element makes logical sense.
  • BehaviorThe theory of planned behavior includes a component dealing with self-efficacy, which refers to a person’s belief that he/she can actually perform the intended behavior. From Ewert, A., & Galloway, G. (2009). Socially desirable responding in an environmental context: development of a domain specific scale. In Environmental Education Research (Vol. 15, Issue 1, pp. 55–70). Informa UK Limited. https://doi.org/10.1080/13504620802613504 referring to Hardeman, W., Johnston, M., Johnston, D., Bonetti, D., Wareham, N., & Kinmonth, A. L. (2002). Application of the Theory of Planned Behaviour in Behaviour Change Interventions: A Systematic Review. In Psychology & Health (Vol. 17, Issue 2, pp. 123–158). Informa UK Limited. https://doi.org/10.1080/08870440290013644a 
  • NeuroticismThe locus of control measure was highly correlated with self-efficacy, and the neuroticism measure was the converse of the positive self-evaluations. Judge et al., (1998).
  • Willingness to take risksI have no sources to cite, but the evidence is promising.
  • Feedback"Self-efficacy and subsequent task performance improves after receiving higher, more detailed levels of performance feedback." Lopez-Garrido
  • Resilience"According to Connor and Davidson (2003), resilient people have certain characteristics. These characteristics may include self-efficacy." https://positivepsychology.com/resilience-skills/ referring to Connor, K. M., & Davidson, J. R. T. (2003). Development of a new resilience scale: The Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale (CD-RISC). In Depression and Anxiety (Vol. 18, Issue 2, pp. 76–82). Wiley. https://doi.org/10.1002/da.10113 
  • Possible selvesDark-Freudeman & West (2016)
  • Cognitive strengthKolbe, Kathy (2009) "Self-efficacy results from exercising control over personal conative strengths", Wisdom of the ages. Cited by Lopez-Garrido
  • Determination and perseveranceLopez-Garrido
  • Self-accountabilityLopez-Garrido
  • Less worryJazaieri et al., 2013
  • High agencySelf-efficacy is considered an important component of "agentic functioning". Code, J. (2020). Agency for Learning: Intention, Motivation, Self-Efficacy and Self-Regulation. In Frontiers in Education (Vol. 5). Frontiers Media SA. https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2020.00019 
  • Job satisfactionTavousi, M. N. (2015). Dispositional Effects on Job Stressors and Job Satisfaction: The Role of Core Evaluations. In Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences (Vol. 190, pp. 61–68). Elsevier BV. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.04.917 
  • Virtues/strengthsSelf-efficacy is a key factor in the following character strengths: judgment, perspective, bravery, honesty, leadership, forgiveness, humility, and spirituality; according to Gander, F., Wagner, L., Amann, L., & Ruch, W. (2021). What are character strengths good for? A daily diary study on character strengths enactment. In The Journal of Positive Psychology (pp. 1–11). Informa UK Limited. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2021.1926532 

In a 2010 entry, Bandura, the father of the concept of self-efficacy, adds the following:Bandura, A. (2010). Self-Efficacy. In The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470479216.corpsy0836

  • Skill acquisition
  • Rate of performance
  • Expenditure of energy
  • Persistence
  • Goal setting
  • Self-monitoring of goals
  • Low vulnerability to stress and depression

Bandura says people who have a strong sense of efficacy:

  • Consider difficult tasks as challenges to be overcome rather than threats to be avoided
  • Set challenging goals and stay committed to them
  • Focus on how to perform effectively rather than being distracted by personal concerns in times of difficulty
  • Infer that failures result from insufficient effort or insufficient knowledge and skills that can be remedied
  • Redouble their efforts in the face of obstacles
  • Quickly regain their sense of efficacy after setbacks or failures

Questions and answers

Here are the questions I wrote as part of my essay/brainstorming session:

  • What is the relationship between self-efficacy and goal setting?
  • Are easy tasks more likely to increase your self-efficacy, or should you seek challenges that will make you feel really effective?
  • Should you be testing yourself on self-efficacy in order to increase it?
  • Does self-efficacy have a social component?
  • What is the relationship between self-efficacy and emotional well-being?

And here are the answers I have found so far:Unless otherwise stated, all of the following are from the Lopez-Garrido article I referenced above. Heck, I was tempted to replace this entire article with a link to that one.

What is the relationship between self-efficacy and goal setting?

Motivation stems from an individual's desire to pursue a certain goal, while self-efficacy is based on the individual's belief in their ability to accomplish that goal.

It has been shown that self-efficacy is an accurate predictor of a student's goal setting and goal monitoring.Bandura, 2010 

Should you be testing yourself on self-efficacy in order to increase it?

According to Bandura, two types of experiences that promote self-efficacy are unique to the individual. Performance outcomes, also known as mastery experiences, are the experiences of taking on a new task and achieving a favorable outcome. Since they provide real evidence, they are the most influential source of efficacy knowledge. Whether they realize it or not, participants in this process are educating themselves that they can learn new abilities.

This partly answers my question. I already know that feedback is important for making progress. However, I also discovered that it's witnessing the success of our efforts, not objectively knowing that we're making progress, that increases our self-efficacy.

Consider a study where children with significant social and psychomotor impairments were assisted in completing a task that well exceeded their level of ability. They later saw videotapes of themselves performing the activity, edited to remove all errors and external assistance. The handicapped children's performance on later videotaped tasks that they were not supported with improved as a result of watching their successful performance on camera.Dowrick, P.W. (1977). I referred to this same study in another article where I provided a reference to Albert Bandura's citation of this unpublished paper.

What is the relationship between self-efficacy and emotional well-being?

The other type of individually-experienced self-efficacy booster is physiological feedback. According to Bandura, "People experience sensations from their body and how they perceive these emotional arousals influences their beliefs of efficacy." It follows, then, that feeling healthy and emotionally well makes boosting self-efficacy much easier.

Does self-efficacy have a social component?

Yes, Bandura identified two social components of self-efficacy development. The first is verbal persuasion, receiving positive feedback after finishing a challenging task. It is beneficial at any age, but it has a stronger impact on self-efficacy when given earlier in life. Self-efficacy and subsequent task performance are boosted by higher, more detailed levels of performance feedback. Feedback is best given succinctly and regularly.
The fourth component identified by Bandura is vicarious experience, observing someone else complete a task effectively. Those who see others achieve better outcomes or receive praise from their boss for their good behavior will want to learn how to act and behave in the same way. 
The social development of self-efficacy is an interactive process. Engaged students are able to learn from one another, and their self-efficacy is influenced by how those closest to them act.
James Maddux argued that there may be fifth key source of self-efficacy: imaginal experiences, or visualization.Self-Efficacy, Adaptation, and Adjustment: Theory, Research, and Application

Are easy tasks more likely to increase your self-efficacy, or should you seek challenges that will make you feel really effective?

I didn't find a direct answer to my question yet, but I think the answer can be deduced from the above. Also, I haven't yet written anything about the concept of flow as defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It fits pretty well here, though, so I'll briefly summarize the relevant points. 

Csikszentmihalyi found that many of the people he interviewed characterized peak performance as times when their work just flowed out without effort, so he coined the term "flow state." A flow state consists of clear goals and intrinsically rewarding tasks, rapid feedback, relative effortlessness, a balance of challenges and abilities, and a feeling of control. It should go without saying that engaging in such activity will boost one's self-efficacy.

How to increase self-efficacy

In this case, I think my sources lined up nicely. As a result of the foregoing, increasing one's self-efficacy should be attainable by taking the following steps:

  • Find activities that are challenging enough for your current level of ability. Continue practicing until you see progress.
  • When you're not feeling well, avoid assessing your progress. Emotional and physical distress can alter the way you evaluate yourself.
  • Look for people who can provide you with feedback that takes your abilities and self-confidence into consideration. Be careful not to get involved with people who don't understand how challenging your task is or who don't want you to succeed.
  • It's best to surround yourself with people who have similar goals and challenges as yourself, especially if they are successful. 
  • Try to visualize yourself achieving your goals. Try to imagine yourself covering every step of the process successfully. No shortcuts!

What are virtues?

It hasn't always occurred to me that virtues are linked to having a bright outlook. But I am learning that this is true with increasing frequency. What are virtues? Are there a few key virtues that embody everything that is virtuous? Do virtues pose any hidden dangers? In addition, what key questions will enable us to understand virtue? The purpose of this post is to explore these questions.

This week I'm starting a new approach to writing blog posts. Over a year ago I wrote about my goal of learning in public, but I still have much room for improvement in that regard. From now on I will write about my thoughts both before and after my weekly research process.

My first step is always to consult my "second brain" on my computer, where I keep all my research notes. After that, I decide which topic to explore in more depth. My preliminary step beginning this week is to write what I already know about the subject from my "first brain," the one on my shoulders.

Here are the prompts I will write about each week:

  1. Why is this an important topic?
  2. What do I already know about this topic?
  3. What concepts are connected?
  4. What questions do I want to answer?

Let's get started.

What I know

These sections incorporate things I wrote in an essay before doing research for this post, edited for brevity.

What are virtues?

Here's my current definition of virtues without consulting a dictionary: values that motivate people to make a contribution to society.

Why is this an important topic?

Virtues mediate and reduce conflict, which is one reason why we should care about them. Considering how much damage wars and other conflicts cause in the world, it is obvious that this is important.

We must also focus on long-term benefits, not just short-term ones. The way we live now is unsustainable, and everyone should recognize that. Exploiting other planets and asteroids would be one solution. If this world's resources aren't enough for us, it's hard to imagine what will happen if we tap into more. I think inequality will increase, not decrease. Consciously or not, everyone seems to expect that the next generation will be more virtuous. The alternative is unthinkable.

What do I already know about this topic?

I believe that adequate short-term benefits also come from pursuing virtues to make them worth pursuing right now. I think a lot of people associate virtues with stoicism, but I think they can lead to a happier life for anyone.

I also wrote about basic activities all people engage in. The words survival, gratification, doing what's right, and helping society sum up what I wrote. They are basically the factors that drive our daily activities. Certainly, some of these activities are considered to be virtuous by most people. My question is whether we can consider them all to be virtuous activities.I've considered a lot of Nathaniel Branden's ideas about the need for responsibility and integrity, which arguably are both virtues, in order to have a high level of true self-esteem. If that is true, then logically, the other pillars of self-esteem, living consciously, self-acceptance, assertiveness, and living purposefully could also be considered virtues since they also contribute to SE. I intend to explore this further in the future.

What concepts are connected?

Virtues and values are both important. I think they also are related to beliefs. We value something if we believe it's valuable. The more benefit we get from a virtue, the more we cherish and pursue it. 

Pushing our needs and wants on to someone else is certainly not virtue. This reminds me of what I've been reading in the Six Pillars book about the practice of living responsibly.

What questions do I want to answer?

  • What are the similarities and differences between virtues and values? 
  • Is it possible to be virtuous without effort?
  • What virtues have the greatest impact on global well-being?Science may have just started to get a handle on this one. "There is ... emerging evidence that character strengths can contribute to sustainability and pro-environmental behavior." Stahlmann, A. G., & Ruch, W. (2020). Scrutinizing the Criteria for Character Strengths: Laypersons Assert That Every Strength Is Positively Morally Valued, Even in the Absence of Tangible Outcomes. In Frontiers in Psychology (Vol. 11). Frontiers Media SA. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.591028
  • Is it reasonable to expect that the next generation will be more virtuous than this one without effort?
  • Is it fair to place that burden on future generations who may not be in the same position as we are to develop virtues?
  • As social relationships are one of the most important factors in happiness, well-being, and even wealth, shouldn't we strive for virtues that make us more attractive socially?
  • Can virtues be linked to happiness or life satisfaction?

The results of my research

Back when I was doing research for my posts on values, I came across some interesting references to the "Values in Action" work by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, which I saved in my notes.Most of the research I did for today's article is based on references I found in Ruch, W., & Proyer, R. T. (2015). Mapping strengths into virtues: the relation of the 24 VIA-strengths to six ubiquitous virtues. In Frontiers in Psychology (Vol. 6). Frontiers Media SA. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00460 The material I found there can serve as a springboard for exploring a number of aspects of this issue.This is a timely subject, as indicated on the Wikipedia page for Values in Action Inventory of Strengths there's currently a note, "It has been suggested that Character Strengths and Virtues be merged into this article - Proposed since December 2021."

One of the papers that caught my interest was authored by Tim Lomas, who surveys world languages to find hidden insights about wellbeing from "untranslatable words."Lomas, T. (2018). The Roots of Virtue: A Cross-Cultural Lexical Analysis. In Journal of Happiness Studies (Vol. 20, Issue 4, pp. 1259–1279). Springer Science and Business Media LLC. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-018-9997-8  In fact, I came across his work last year when I was looking for a good way to answer the question, What is love?If you are fluent in another language you might be interested in helping him with his interactive lexicography project.

What I've learned

I learned a lot about the definition of virtue. Virtue has a strong moral component, indicating "conformity to a standard of right". A virtue can be a quality, an action, a strength, a habit, or a pattern of behavior. It is generally held that virtues are not only good in and of themselves, but also contribute to the happiness and satisfaction of others. Robin Campbell, editor of the 2004 volume Letters From a Stoic by Seneca, had this to say:

In this way we shall arrive at the true end of man, happiness, through having attained the one and only good thing in life, the ideal or goal called arete in Greek and in Latin virtus – for which the English word ‘virtue’ is so unsatisfactory a translation. This, the summum bonum or ‘supreme ideal’, is usually summarized in ancient philosophy as a combination of four qualities: wisdom (or moral insight), courage, self-control and justice (or upright dealing).

So, naturally I needed to find out what arete and virtus meant.

Arete (Greek: ἀρετή) in its most basic sense, refers to "excellence" of any kind. The term may also mean “intrinsic eminence, moral goodness, virtue, . . . any particular moral excellence.” Arete describes an individual who uses all their faculties to achieve real results, namely, strength, courage, and wit.Here's a three-factor description for comparison with the factor analyses mentioned below.

Virtus comes from vir, the Latin word for man. The suffix -tus creates an adjective with the quality of the noun, thus making virtus the equivalent of the English word manly.The English word “virility” comes from the same Latin root. Originally, it referred to a brave warrior, having a meaning similar to that of the modern English word valor. Eventually, it could also mean he was a good person who did the right thing, and this is the part that survives in the English word virtue.

In the paper I read (cited above), Lomas summarizes the most recent research on virtues, notably that of Seligman and Peterson. He explains how they selected 24 strengths and grouped them under six virtues based on 12 carefully chosen criteria. Since then, other scholars have used tools such as factor analysis to determine whether their choices make logical sense. In so doing, researchers have also found solutions involving five-, four-, three-, and two-factor models.

Gems about virtues I discovered in my notes

Campbell refers to four qualities of ancient philosophy in the quote above. Could modern statistical methods confirm them? Is it possible that scientists will one day find that some other collection of qualities serves as a better representation of virtues in general?

Here are a couple of examples so far: 

Based on an analysis of 390 participants' responses, four factors were identified: empathy, order, resourcefulness, and serenity. Furthermore, the authors concluded that virtue has more to do with personality than with moral reasoning and cognitive development.Cawley, M. J., III, Martin, J. E., & Johnson, J. A. (2000). A virtues approach to personality. In Personality and Individual Differences (Vol. 28, Issue 5, pp. 997–1013). Elsevier BV. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0191-8869(99)00207-x 

According to at least two other papers, dominant virtues can be categorized as caring, inquisitiveness, or self-control.McGrath, R. E. (2014). Integrating psychological and cultural perspectives on virtue: The hierarchical structure of character strengths. In The Journal of Positive Psychology (Vol. 10, Issue 5, pp. 407–424). Informa UK Limited. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2014.994222 and McGrath, R. E., Greenberg, M. J., & Hall-Simmonds, A. (2017). Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, and Cowardly Lion: The three-factor model of virtue. In The Journal of Positive Psychology (Vol. 13, Issue 4, pp. 373–392). Informa UK Limited. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2017.1326518 

A more recent study determined that more than half of the strengths identified by Peterson and Seligman can be captured by the terms positivity, dependability, and mastery.Partsch, M. V., Bluemke, M., & Lechner, C. M. (2021). Revisiting the hierarchical structure of the 24 VIA character strengths: Three global dimensions may suffice to capture their essence. In European Journal of Personality (p. 089020702110177). SAGE Publications. https://doi.org/10.1177/08902070211017760 

The 2000 study suggests that virtues are closely linked to personality, so it appears that the answer to my question of whether a person may display some virtues without exerting much effort, is yes. However, it stands to reason that no one is 100% virtuous. 

Moreover, I learned that virtue and challenges go hand in hand. Challenges can produce virtue when they are faced appropriately. In turn, developing virtues helps us overcome challenges in the future.

According to Gregory David Roberts, author of Shantaram:

It's a characteristic of human nature that the best qualities, called up quickly in a crisis, are very often the hardest to find in prosperous calm. The contours of all our virtues are shaped by adversity.

The authors of a 2016 study agree: 

A primary justification for the study of coping is the notion that, when people are faced with adversity, the ways they react to and deal with its challenges can make a material difference to their subsequent development. If they are overwhelmed, they can become more vulnerable to subsequent psychological problems and disorder; if they rise to the challenge, they can become toughened, strengthened, and more resilient to future threats and difficulties.Zimmer-Gembeck, M. J., & Skinner, E. A. (2016). The Development of Coping: Implications for Psychopathology and Resilience. In Developmental Psychopathology (pp. 1–61). John Wiley & Sons, Inc. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119125556.devpsy410 

Finally, I like the way a reference work summarized this:

Virtue might, therefore, be likened to a strong metal such as iron, which by repeated heatings and coolings can be tempered so as to become steel, making it not only stronger but also tougher, far less likely to crack under strain.

In addition, I learned that false virtues need to be avoided. One mistake is to confuse virtues with good intentions.

We will be more inclined to act on our impulses if we feel good about our virtue. For example, when people plan to exercise the next day, they tend to eat more at dinner.From The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal

It is also a mistake to show off our virtue. In 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson wrote,

Telling people you’re virtuous isn’t a virtue, it’s self-promotion.... Virtue signaling is, quite possibly, our commonest vice.

Joseph Grenny highlighted the need to recognize the tendency to tell ourselves "victim stories" that magnify our virtues while relinquishing all responsibility for the situation. The result is overreacting to the problem instead of finding a solution.

For future exploration

For future consideration, I'm adding the following to the questions I raised above. The studies referenced in the footnotes may help answer each of these questions.

  • Would three dimensions of character strengths be sufficient to capture their essence?Partsch, Bluemke & Lechner (2021).
  • Which influences virtue measurements more, social-cultural factors or biological factors?Duan, W., & Ho, S. M. Y. (2016). Three-Dimensional Model of Strengths: Examination of Invariance Across Gender, Age, Education Levels, and Marriage Status. In Community Mental Health Journal (Vol. 53, Issue 2, pp. 233–240). Springer Science and Business Media LLC. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10597-016-0038-y 
  • Is it possible to increase happiness by working on character strengths?Proyer, R. T., Gander, F., Wellenzohn, S., & Ruch, W. (2015). Strengths-based positive psychology interventions: a randomized placebo-controlled online trial on long-term effects for a signature strengths- vs. a lesser strengths-intervention. In Frontiers in Psychology (Vol. 06). Frontiers Media SA. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00456 
  • What is the relationship between an individual's character strengths and being considered a person of "good character"?Ruch, W., Heintz, S., & Wagner, L. (2020). Co-occurrence Patterns of Character Strengths and Measured Core Virtues in German-Speaking Adults. In Frontiers in Psychology (Vol. 11). Frontiers Media SA. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.599094 
  • How do virtues relate to personality traits?Morales-Vives, F., De Raad, B., & Vigil-Colet, A. (2014). Psycho-Lexically Based Virtue Factors in Spain and Their Relation With Personality Traits. In The Journal of General Psychology (Vol. 141, Issue 4, pp. 297–325). Informa UK Limited. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221309.2014.938719 
  • Can Twitter be used to predict and characterize character strengths?Pang, D., Eichstaedt, J. C., Buffone, A., Slaff, B., Ruch, W., & Ungar, L. H. (2019). The language of character strengths: Predicting morally valued traits on social media. In Journal of Personality (Vol. 88, Issue 2, pp. 287–306). Wiley. https://doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12491 
  • What strengths should be targeted in strengths-based interventions?Proyer, R. T., Ruch, W., & Buschor, C. (2012). Testing Strengths-Based Interventions: A Preliminary Study on the Effectiveness of a Program Targeting Curiosity, Gratitude, Hope, Humor, and Zest for Enhancing Life Satisfaction. In Journal of Happiness Studies (Vol. 14, Issue 1, pp. 275–292). Springer Science and Business Media LLC. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-012-9331-9 

In conclusion

We live in an age of moral relativism, so it's often difficult to remember that seeking virtues leads to a better life. Cutting-edge research provides evidence that virtues are just as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago. When we know how virtues are formed, we can boldly face adversity rather than run away from it. Having a deeper understanding of the dangers of false virtues helps us identify maladaptive tendencies within ourselves.

As time goes on, I'm looking forward to learning more about virtues and sharing what I'm learning with you. These efforts will lead to a brighter outlook, and they are well worth the effort.

More powerful than thinking positive

A lot of good advice is available to help people increase their self-esteem. To the extent that we put it into practice, most of it works.

It's a challenge for me to write this article because it's a fine point and very nuanced, yet it could make a big difference.

A person with low self-esteem often dwells on the negatives. They may complain and find fault with others, or with themselves, depending on their personality. Some well-meaning advice asks us to measure how much negative thinking we tend to do over time. Then, they encourage us to look for the positives rather than the negatives, to see the silver lining in every cloud.

This has merit, of course. The problem is, many people who try techniques like this are not able to improve their self-esteem. In fact, it may even be counterproductive. Why?

An individual with high self-esteem is generally happier, accomplishes more, and performs better. So high SE is always a good thing, right? Actually, it depends.

Scientists have observed different types of high self-esteem. They can be grouped into the following:

  1. Contingent high SE
  2. Defensive high SE
  3. Secure high SE

Let's determine what each one means, and what this means for our effort to feel better about ourselves.

Contingent high SE

Contingent self-esteem refers to self-esteem that depends on external factors. When things are going well, people with contingent high SE feel good about themselves. Their appearance, performance, and relationships boost their self-esteem.

Their self-esteem plummets, however, when things go poorly for them. 

There is "a significant and consistent negative relationship" between contingent self-esteem and trait self-esteem, according to a study.Kang, Y. (2019). The relationship between contingent self-esteem and trait self-esteem. In Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal (Vol. 47, Issue 2, pp. 1–19). Scientific Journal Publishers Ltd. https://doi.org/10.2224/sbp.7575  In other words, having one's SE dependent on external factors means the person has poor overall self-esteem.

Defensive high SE

Similar to the first type, but in this case high self-esteem is a result of self-image rather than external factors. In addition to not needing good things to happen to feel good about themselves, people with defensive high SE tend to deny anything that contradicts their self-image. They abhor anything that suggests they are less than perfect, and they will vigorously deny or defend themselves against anyone who suggests otherwise. Common defensive tactics include:

  • Attacking the other person
  • Seeing hostile motives in others
  • Getting angry
  • Retreating or avoiding
  • Irrational thinking or behavior

Defensive high SE, is popularly known as narcissism. A 2015 study found that children tend to thrive when their parents praise them less and shower them with warmth and love instead. While the former tend to internalize self-superiority beliefs, the latter develop a healthy sense of self-worth.Brummelman, E., Thomaes, S., Nelemans, S. A., Orobio de Castro, B., Overbeek, G., & Bushman, B. J. (2015). Origins of narcissism in children. In Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Vol. 112, Issue 12, pp. 3659–3662). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1420870112 

Notice the mention of beliefs. In another blog post, I discussed how we tend to cling most strongly to beliefs that are socially beneficial. They are also linked to fears. When someone believes that the only alternative to perfection is helplessness and hopelessness, strong feelings of anxiety are triggered that they want to avoid as much as possible. Rather than embrace reality, they flee from it.

Secure high SE

According to R. J. Ruddell, individuals with optimal (secure) self-esteem have feelings of self-worth that are:

I examined two studies about the relationship between mindfulness and secure SE. A study published in 2013 examined the various aspects of mindfulness to determine which one had a greater impact on self-esteem.Pepping, C. A., O’Donovan, A., & Davis, P. J. (2013). The positive effects of mindfulness on self-esteem. In The Journal of Positive Psychology (Vol. 8, Issue 5, pp. 376–386). Informa UK Limited. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2013.807353 

Their findings indicated that the most important factor was a non-judgmental view of oneself and one's thoughts and emotions. The other helpful aspects of mindfulness are:

  • The ability to describe what one observes (including emotional literacy)
  • Awareness (paying attention, not acting mindlessly)
  • Not reacting (“I watch my feelings without getting lost in them”)

Another study published in 2017 examined a factor, namely self-concept clarity, that contributes to mindfulness and its effects on psychological well-being.Hanley, A. W., & Garland, E. L. (2017). Clarity of mind: Structural equation modeling of associations between dispositional mindfulness, self-concept clarity and psychological well-being. In Personality and Individual Differences (Vol. 106, pp. 334–339). Elsevier BV. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2016.10.028  In essence, self-concept answers the question, "Who am I?" Since self-concept is how one thinks of oneself and self-esteem is how one feels about oneself, it only makes sense that there is a connection between the two. The study found that to be the case.

The study authors also linked self-concept with the narrative self. A self-concept “involves personal identity and continuity across time as well as conceptual thought.” It also involves awareness. Observing ourselves, recognizing and describing what we see, and weaving it into a useful narrative helps us make sense of our identities.

The 2017 study, with more than 1,000 participants, confirmed the findings of the first study. Interestingly, the authors of the first study wrote:

The mindfulness induction did not explicitly target self-esteem. Specifically, there was no focus on changing or altering thoughts, no focus on thinking more positively about oneself, and no focus on temporarily bolstering positive views of oneself. Rather, the focus of the induction (consistent with mindfulness) was to adopt a different relationship to thoughts and feelings.

How can we use this?

There's nothing wrong with positive thinking. But while it may sell a lot of books, it won't necessarily give you secure high self-esteem.It's ironic that Peale is accused of always reacting "to the image of harshness with flight.” See the above linked Wikipedia article. I find it very interesting that Donald Trump, whom many people identify as a narcissist, reportedly has a very high regard for Norman Vincent Peale.

A mindfulness approach focuses on:

  • Being aware of what's really there rather than seeing oneself in a more positive light
  • Seeing the truth rather than substituting self-judgments
  • Knowing how to deal with reality instead of resisting it or wishing it away
  • Learning from setbacks rather than feeling defeated by them
  • Integrating failures and disappointments into a narrative of hope and opportunity

Learning from life's experiences can help individuals become less self-judgmental. Youngjin Kang observed that contingent self-esteem tends to decrease with age. He also noted that the contingent component most strongly associated with self-esteem is a "psychological sensitivity to evaluations."Kang, Y. (2019) We need to learn how to be less judgmental of ourselves and others, and how to be less sensitive to others' judgments. Learning to be mindfully self-aware puts us ahead of the curve.

In this blog, I have emphasized time and time again that gaining a strong grip on reality is not only the course of wisdom, it's essential for future success.

The quest for wisdom in a modern world

When I was researching for last week's blog post I came across an article saying that wisdom influences life satisfaction much more than other factors. I was intrigued.

I was also intrigued when I read what the study's author, Monika Ardelt, had to say about wisdom:

Until recently, the ancient concept of wisdom was widely ignored in the social and psychological literature. During the last number of years, however, wisdom has gained in popularity, particularly in the areas of human development, successful aging, and personal growth. Yet, even after well over a decade of contemporary wisdom research, a uniform definition of this concept does not exist.Ardelt, M. (1997). Wisdom and Life Satisfaction in Old Age. In The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences (Vol. 52B, Issue 1, pp. P15–P27). Oxford University Press (OUP). https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/52b.1.p15 

The study, performed in 1997, consisted of 39 men and 81 women in Berkeley, California, who were first surveyed in 1928/29 and then again 40 years later. Using a standardized personality assessment system, taped interviews of the participants were meticulously coded.

These are the correlations between the factors considered and life satisfaction, according to the study:

For the men:
Wisdom (.64)
Physical health (.56)
Social involvement (.33)
Financial situation (.20)

For the women:
Wisdom (.77)
Financial situation (.46)
Socioeconomic status (.33)
Physical health (.32)
Social involvement (.28)
Physical environment (.25)

All other factors were below .20Marital status wasn't considered as a factor. Age had a slightly negative correlation. Figures differ from other studies to some degree (but are reasonably similar) likely due to the small sample size and rough granularity of factors (generally on a 0 to 3 scale). I'm most interested in the definition of wisdom used in the study, though, so I'm not overly concerned with its accuracy.

Considering that wisdom isn't usually considered when assessing life satisfaction, these results are thought-provoking. Given Ardelt's comments on wisdom, I was motivated to find out how the researchers defined wisdom.

I will touch briefly on the source of Ardelt's definition of wisdom. The formula she chose came from a book about psychology and human development that was published in 1980.Clayton, V. P., & Birren, J. E. (1980). The development of wisdom across the life-span: A reexamination of an ancient topic. In P. B. Baltes and O. G. Brim, Jr. (Eds.), Life-span development and behavior (Vol. 3, pp. 103-135). New York: Academic Press. Clayton and Birren, the authors of the chapter, in turn, referenced the work of Norma Haan who authored authoritative publications about ego functioning.Haan, N. (1969). A Tripartite Model Of Ego Functioning Values And Clinical And Research Applications. In The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease (Vol. 148, Issue 1, pp. 14–30). Ovid Technologies (Wolters Kluwer Health). https://doi.org/10.1097/00005053-196901000-00003

The Clayton and Birren model of wisdom that Ardelt used is comprised of three components: a person's cognitive, reflective, and affective qualities. Here are some of the factors that determine these three components:

  1. Cognitive component: The person thinks clearly and objectively, focuses on the problem instead of avoiding it, and uses logical analysis. Basically, the person is a critical thinker.
  2. Reflective component: The person is able to make decisions even when the situation isn't entirely clear. They understand their own motives and behavior rather than projecting their own feelings and motivations onto others. The person can handle criticism and avoids blaming others for undesirable situations. They don't play the victim.
  3. Affective component: The person demonstrates empathy. They are considerate and generous, warm and compassionate. They avoid questioning others' motives. They try to be straightforward in their dealings with others rather than undermining, obstructing, or sabotaging. They avoid exploiting others.

There is an interesting connection between wisdom and critical thinking here. It is worth exploring further.

The reflective component reminds me of the concept of the accountability ladder. This infographic illustrates it particularly well: 

Each step up the rungs becomes more accountable and less powerless

As I think about it a bit more, the Reflective component focuses on (internal) self-awareness while the Accountability ladder focuses on doing the work. Still, I believe both are based on wisdom.

When I first glanced at the Affective component, I thought it might have something to do with emotional intelligence, but after looking closer, I would say it's something to do with prosocial behaviors, as Ardelt says:

Reflective thinking and a diminished ego-centeredness lead to a deeper comprehension of the contradictions, imperfections, and negative aspects of human nature, a process that is likely to make a person more caring, empathic, and compassionate toward others. As a consequence, a wise man or woman seeks to help other people and not to harm anyone.

Ardelt relates wisdom to the "transcendence of one's subjectivity," which, in turn, is connected to seeing reality more clearly. In this case, I'm reminded of what I wrote about ego strength, which is based heavily on a strong grasp of reality.

We all know that wisdom contributes to a bright outlook. As we explore this topic further, we'll gain a better understanding of what wisdom is.

How satisfied are you with your life?

How are you today?

No, really. I want to know. How happy are you today on a scale of zero to ten?

Now let's get serious. On a scale of 0 to 10, how satisfied are you with your life?

That's right. On a scale of 0-10, how would you rate your entire life so far? Just for fun, write it down. Soon, we'll compare your number with an average from 38 countries.

First, let's talk about life satisfaction (LS): What is it? Why is it important? What factors are involved? Which findings might surprise you?

What is life satisfaction, exactly?

I've written about the subject quite a bit on this blog already. In fact, it's the main reason I've chosen to focus on having a "bright outlook." According to Word Hippo, bright can mean "Likely to be successful or prosperous." The purpose of this blog is to help people prosper and find satisfaction in life. Honestly, what's more important to you than feeling satisfied with your life?

Here are some ways of defining "life satisfaction":

We'll start with our old favorite, the APA Dictionary of Psychology. Life satisfaction is:

  • The degree to which one finds life rich, meaningful, full, and of high quality.
  • One's subjective assessment of the quality of one's life, implying contentment with or acceptance of one's circumstances or the fulfillment of one's wants and needs.Sousa, L., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2001). Life satisfaction. In J. Worell(Ed.), Encyclopedia of women and gender: Sex similarities and differences and the impact of society on gender (Vol. 2, pp. 667-676). San Diego, CA: Academic Press
  • An overall evaluation of one's feelings and attitudes about life at a particular time ranging from negative to positive.Buetell, N. (2006). Life satisfaction, a Sloan Work and Family Encyclopedia entry.
  • An individual's evaluation of their own life according to the factors that are most important to them.Eric Kim, Assistant Professor, UBC Psychology. Head author of Kim, E. S., Delaney, S. W., Tay, L., Chen, Y., Diener, E., & Vanderweele, T. J. (2021). Life Satisfaction and Subsequent Physical, Behavioral, and Psychosocial Health in Older Adults. In The Milbank Quarterly (Vol. 99, Issue 1, pp. 209–239). Wiley. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-0009.12497

Ed Diener's definition of life satisfaction might be the most useful. He was arguably the leading authority on the topic for many years. Among the most commonly used instruments for measuring this evaluation is the Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLS) he and his colleagues developed in 1985.

In the SWLS, respondents rate their life based on five aspects:

  1. What is your level of satisfaction with your life?
  2. How close is your life to your ideal?
  3. Are you satisfied with your current life circumstances?
  4. Have you achieved what matters most to you?
  5. Are there any changes you would make?The actual five-question survey uses fewer words than I used to describe it. I'll leave it as an exercise for you to locate the actual SWLS. (It took me less than a minute).

Other scales, such as the "Cantrill ladder" used by Gallup in its World Poll, ask respondents to choose only one number. Speaking of which, let's see the results of the 38-country survey I promised above. The OECD asked people in its member nations to rate their general satisfaction with life on a scale from 0 to 10. The global average was 6.5. How does your life satisfaction compare?

Why is this important?

Life satisfaction is inherently important. It is important for other reasons as well.

A 2021 study used data from a nationally representative cohort of nearly 13,000 US adults over age 50.Kim et al. (2021) study referenced above The question they considered was, does a person's current life satisfaction predict their future well-being? In many areas, the result was an emphatic yes. Over a four-year period, high life satisfaction correlated with reduced risk in the following areas:

  • Depression (46%)
  • Mortality (26%)
  • Limitations of physical functioning (25%)
  • The onset of sleep problems (14%)
  • Chronic pain (12%)

The results of this study are in agreement with earlier ones. Besides reduced risks, respondents who were satisfied with their lives were 8% more likely to engage in frequent physical activity and also scored well on several indicators of psychological well-being.

Another study, the first of its kind, investigated how variability in life satisfaction is related to longevity.Boehm, J. K., Winning, A., Segerstrom, S., & Kubzansky, L. D. (2015). Variability Modifies Life Satisfaction’s Association With Mortality Risk in Older Adults. In Psychological Science (Vol. 26, Issue 7, pp. 1063–1070). SAGE Publications. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797615581491 Over a period of nine years, the study followed 4,458 Australians 50 or older. Researchers found that participants whose life satisfaction increased during the study had an 18% lower chance of dying. Those with high life satisfaction all had a reduced risk of mortality. Conversely, those with both low life satisfaction and highly variable ratings had an increased mortality risk of up to 20%.I am over 50, so these studies particularly resonate with me. However, if you are young, please don't disregard this. Young people generally fail to understand that time passes faster than they expect. Apparently, this is only learned through hindsight. However, there are a few bright young people who have articulated this concept better than I can. If you can grasp this concept you will have a bright outlook indeed.

A study of octogenarians found that those in the lowest quartile of satisfaction with present life had an almost twofold higher mortality risk than those in the highest quartile, even after adjusting for multiple confounding factors.Lyyra, T.-M., Tormakangas, T. M., Read, S., Rantanen, T., & Berg, S. (2006). Satisfaction With Present Life Predicts Survival in Octogenarians. In The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences (Vol. 61, Issue 6, pp. P319–P326). Oxford University Press (OUP). https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/61.6.p319 Compare the results of the Gerstorf et al. study below for a better understanding of this phenomenon.

There is strong evidence that life satisfaction and work engagement are reciprocal. In other words, they are closely linked and may feed off each other.Ferreira, P., Gabriel, C., Faria, S., Rodrigues, P., & Sousa Pereira, M. (2020). What if Employees Brought Their Life to Work? The Relation of Life Satisfaction and Work Engagement. In Sustainability (Vol. 12, Issue 7, p. 2743). MDPI AG. https://doi.org/10.3390/su12072743  Also see Judge, T. A., & Watanabe, S. (1993). Another look at the job satisfaction-life satisfaction relationship. Journal of Applied Psychology, 78, 938-949.

An often-cited paper suggests that 50% of our happiness is genetic and 10% based on our circumstances.Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change. In Review of General Psychology (Vol. 9, Issue 2, pp. 111–131). SAGE Publications. https://doi.org/10.1037/1089-2680.9.2.111  That leaves us with 40% under our control. In this article, we will learn how to make the most of it.

Sounds great! How do I increase it?

Let's start with Ed Diener's landmark 1984 paper.Diener, E. (1984). Subjective well-being. Psychological Bulletin, 95(3), 542–575. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.95.3.542 According to Diener, 

The highest correlation was with satisfaction with self (.55), suggesting that people must have self-esteem to be satisfied with their lives.

No wonder I spend so much time writing about self-esteem on this blog. Other factors that Diener and others found important (not surprisingly) included satisfaction with one's living standard, one's family life, and particularly one's love life.

The high predictive value of these factors has been found by other researchers as well. We will quantify the factors using data from a UK Office for National Statistics report.Vassilev, G. & Manclossi, S. (2019). Personal and economic well-being: what matters most to our life satisfaction? Office for National Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/articles/personalandeconomicwellbeingintheuk/whatmattersmosttoourlifesatisfaction on 25 November 2021.
Study participants numbered 286,059, so researchers had a big sample size to work with. Which factors did they identify as having the greatest impact on life satisfaction?


Does it surprise you to know that your age is one of the biggest factors? This is part of the ten percent that we can't control mentioned above. However, knowing what to expect gives us control over something very important: our attitude and expectations.

It turns out studies have shown a strong tendency for life satisfaction to fall in middle age and rise again in later years.

Among the personal characteristics examined in the UK report, age has the strongest association with life satisfaction. When people reach their 40s, life satisfaction falls to its lowest point, then rises again as we approach retirement age, and drops again as we enter our 80s.

According to the 2012 World Happiness Report, this pattern "has been observed in many countries in many continents."

Near the end of life, life satisfaction begins to fall again, not based on age but based on the nearness of death. A 12-year study involving more than 400 people found most showed a doubling of the decline in LS around 4 years before death.Gerstorf, D., Ram, N., Röcke, C., Lindenberger, U., & Smith, J. (2008). Decline in life satisfaction in old age: Longitudinal evidence for links to distance-to-death. In Psychology and Aging (Vol. 23, Issue 1, pp. 154–168). American Psychological Association (APA). https://doi.org/10.1037/0882-7974.23.1.154 

Marital status

In spite of the growing popular perception of marriage as outdated and old-fashioned, it still plays an important role in life satisfaction.

Vassiliev and ManclossiSee UK Office for National Statistics report cited above found that marital status was the second strongest predictor of life satisfaction. Those who were not married or in a civil partnership reported 5-10 percent lower life satisfaction than those who were.

The connection is so strong that a study of historical data from Finland used the number of marriages as a proxy for life satisfaction.This is because historical data for life satisfaction wasn't available going back that far. If marriage and life satisfaction weren't so closely related, the conclusions of the study would be meaningless. Reiter, C., & Lutz, W. (2020). Survival and Years of Good Life in Finland in the very long run. In Finnish Yearbook of Population Research (Vol. 54, pp. 1–27). Finnish Yearbook of Population Research. https://doi.org/10.23979/fypr.87148 

Concern for others

It turns out, this isn't just part of a well-rounded personality. Concern for the welfare of others and caring for the needs of others are characteristics of an altruistic attitude that promotes life satisfaction. There is a strong correlation between life satisfaction and altruism, empathy, and social responsibility, according to a study of 428 adolescents.Lu, C., Jiang, Y., Zhao, X., & Fang, P. (2019). Will helping others also benefit you? Chinese adolescents’ altruistic personality traits and life satisfaction. Journal of Happiness Studies, 21(4), 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-019-00134-6 


Psychology Today pointed me to a study finding that people who are prone to curiosity experience "greater life satisfaction from one day to the next."Kashdan, T. B., & Steger, M. F. (2007). Curiosity and pathways to well-being and meaning in life: Traits, states, and everyday behaviors. In Motivation and Emotion (Vol. 31, Issue 3, pp. 159–173). Springer Science and Business Media LLC. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-007-9068-7 The article, co-written by Todd Kashdan (who is also one of the study authors), concludes:

One of life's sharpest paradoxes is that the key to satisfaction is doing things that feel risky [and] uncomfortable.

Prolific writer Courtney Ackerman adds

Trying new things and breaking out of your routine is a great way to improve your satisfaction with life.

Social and family relationship goals

Social relationships and setting goals are each related to LS. The kind of goal matters. German researchers examined whether self-focused goals or social goals led to greater life satisfaction.Rohrer, J. M., Richter, D., Brümmer, M., Wagner, G. G., & Schmukle, S. C. (2018). Successfully Striving for Happiness: Socially Engaged Pursuits Predict Increases in Life Satisfaction. In Psychological Science (Vol. 29, Issue 8, pp. 1291–1298). SAGE Publications. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797618761660 

The study found that those with social-focused goals were more satisfied with their lives. In contrast, those with self-focused goals (staying healthy, finding a better job, or quitting smoking) did slightly worse than those with no goals.

A study surveyed 199 MBA students and followed up with 87 of them after seven years.Masuda, A. D., & Sortheix, F. M. (2011). Work-Family Values, Priority Goals and Life Satisfaction: A Seven Year Follow-up of MBA Students. In Journal of Happiness Studies (Vol. 13, Issue 6, pp. 1131–1144). Springer Science and Business Media LLC. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-011-9310-6  Students who initially prioritized family goals over work goals reported higher levels of life satisfaction both at the beginning and seven years later. The authors concluded that increased levels of family satisfaction accounted for this happiness. In addition, they found:

  • After adjusting for levels of LS at the beginning of the study, there was still a significant relationship between family values and life satisfaction.
  • Family values play a more significant role in life satisfaction than personal goals do.

Life satisfaction and a sense of community are strongly linked, according to another study.Prezza, M., Amici, M., Roberti, T., & Tedeschi, G. (2001). Sense of community referred to the whole town: Its relations with neighboring, loneliness, life satisfaction, and area of residence. In Journal of Community Psychology (Vol. 29, Issue 1, pp. 29–52). Wiley. https://doi.org/10.1002/1520-6629(200101)29:1<29::aid-jcop3>3.0.co;2-c 

Spending money

We all know it can be fun to spend money, but does a shopping spree always increase life satisfaction?

Household spending has a stronger correlation with life satisfaction than household income, though they both matter less than other personal and household circumstances. Also, among all spending categories, hotel and restaurant spending show the strongest positive association with life satisfaction.Vassilev, G. & Manclossi, S. (2019)

Spending money on others increases LS too. 

Other important factors

  • It has been found that compassion towards oneself and others has a stronger effect on LS than some other factors. This seems to be true across cultures.
  • Trust: The World Happiness Report quoted above states, "Social trust spurs a sense of life satisfaction."
  • A hopeful mindset promotes life satisfaction by enabling individuals to identify desired goals in life and leads to increased confidence and motivation.
  • Expressing emotions in positive, productive ways rather than suppressing them is linked with greater LS.

How to reduce your life satisfaction

While I'm sure you don't intend to do this, many activities promoted in our society today have this effect.

Try to get rich

Above we discussed how, under certain circumstances, spending money can increase life satisfaction. Thus, we should strive for as much money as possible, right?

As with most things in life, moderation is the key. A Korean study confirmed the findings of previous studies which "have provided quite consistent results showing that prioritizing extrinsic achievements, such as money, is adversely associated with subjective well-being in general." Lee, M.-A., & Kawachi, I. (2019). The keys to happiness: Associations between personal values regarding core life domains and happiness in South Korea. In S. E. Ha (Ed.), PLOS ONE (Vol. 14, Issue 1, p. e0209821). Public Library of Science (PLoS). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0209821  

eople whose main goals require earning money are also less satisfied with their lives on average."

According to the Masuda study cited above, those with goals of prioritizing work over family had lower life satisfaction at both the beginning and end of the study. In other words, making getting rich a priority means lower LS long-term.

Get more education

This may sound ridiculous, considering the fact that better-educated people are better off in nearly every way. 

A 1996 study of 5,000 British workers found that "the higher the level of education, the lower the reported satisfaction level."Clark, A. E., & Oswald, A. J. (1996). Satisfaction and comparison income. In Journal of Public Economics (Vol. 61, Issue 3, pp. 359–381). Elsevier BV. https://doi.org/10.1016/0047-2727(95)01564-7  The authors attribute this phenomenon to the fact that "education raises aspiration targets." 

Counter to what neoclassical economic theory might lead one to expect, highly educated people appear less content.

Surprised, they surveyed the literature and found statistical support for the finding, despite being contrary to "orthodox thinking". 

Education is always a good thing, but I think we need to be careful about where we pursue education.

Education and income/wealth are both examples where getting more doesn't necessarily make you happier. In metaphorical terms, sometimes becoming a bigger fish simply means entering a bigger pond with even bigger fish.

Definite maybes

This section is reserved for factors that may have an effect on LS. However, the effect is best described as "it depends."


A 2019 article on replicationindex.com declared the small influence of health on global well-being judgments to be a "surprising finding."

Ed Diener wouldn't be surprised. His above-cited paper, published way back in 1984, discusses the fact that although people directly rate health as the second most important domain, satisfaction with health is only the eighth strongest predictor of life satisfaction.

On the other hand, the Vassilev and Manclossi study found a strong connection. Those reporting very good health were three times more likely to report higher life satisfaction than those reporting fair health. In contrast, someone reporting very bad health had a 5.7 times lower chance of reporting higher life satisfaction than someone reporting fair health.

Given just how important health is to wellbeing in general, it is worth revisiting this topic in the future. In the meantime, how can one reconcile this apparent contradiction?

I tend to think of it in the same way as the popular idea that people fear public speaking more than they fear death. I think a lot of it is determined by how often a person thinks about their health. Health to a healthy person is a lot like water to a fish.


Many studies, such as the Korean study above, find strong links between religious activity and LS. However, some have found no connection, as in the case of respondents residing in East GermanySinnewe, E., Kortt, M. A., & Dollery, B. (2014). Religion and Life Satisfaction: Evidence from Germany. In Social Indicators Research (Vol. 123, Issue 3, pp. 837–855). Springer Science and Business Media LLC. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-014-0763-y  and even a negative relationship in the case of elderly people in China.Brown, P.H., & Tierney, B. (2006). Religion and Subjective Well-Being Among China's Elderly Population

Some studies have found "denominational variations" in LS.Ellison, C. G. (1991). Religious Involvement and Subjective Well-Being. In Journal of Health and Social Behavior (Vol. 32, Issue 1, p. 80). SAGE Publications. https://doi.org/10.2307/2136801


I've already written about the weak connection between income and happiness. It bears further elaboration though.

80,000 hours also noted that above $75,000, income "had no relationship with how happy, sad or stressed people felt."

This is hardly surprising – we all know people who’ve gone into high earning jobs and ended up miserable.

The Clark and Oswald study cited above found that workers' perceived levels of well-being are at best weakly correlated with their income alone. Vassilev and Manclossi observed similar results.

Wiblin wrote, "The best available study found that each doubling of your income correlated with a life satisfaction 0.5 points higher on a scale of 1 to 10."

What if money could buy happiness?

In light of the fact that material wealth is weakly correlated with life satisfaction, let's quantify what we have learned.

I wouldn't take the following claims to the bank, but they make sense based on what we've considered:

  • For the average single person, it would take a 767% increase in absolute income to match the happiness boost produced by marriage.Ball, R., & Chernova, K. (2007). Absolute Income, Relative Income, and Happiness. In Social Indicators Research (Vol. 88, Issue 3, pp. 497–529). Springer Science and Business Media LLC. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-007-9217-0 
  • On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is bad health and 5 is perfect health, a move from a rating of 3 to 4 could only be matched by a 6,531% increase in absolute income.
  • Having a better social life can be worth as much as an additional $130,000 a year.
  • A happy marriage is worth $105,000 a year.
  • You’d need as much as an extra $115,000 a year to make up for the life satisfaction you lose due to unemployment.
  • Your health is worth $463,000.
  • Seeing friends and family regularly is worth nearly $100,000.This comes from the same article as the $130K statistic. It makes me wonder what a "better social life" involves that makes it 30% better than just spending time regularly with friends and family. I'm tempted to dive down that rabbit hole, but I need to remind myself that these numbers are illustrative and should not be taken as gospel.

What did we learn? 

Pursuing material wealth is not the key to a satisfying life. Strong relationships are super important, especially if you are fortunate enough to be happily married. If you are middle-aged, like I am, realize that your LS will naturally increase with time. If you are still young, prepare yourself mentally for a dip in the road

Do things for others, get out of your comfort zone, and try new things. Spend your money wisely. Don't worry too much about getting more. Instead, find a job you like and learn to enjoy your work. Prioritize relationships over work, and you'll have fewer regrets.

Also remember, some of the most important things in life don't come with easy answers. Pursuing education, health, and religion won't always lead to greater satisfaction, but this doesn't mean they aren't important. Keep learning, keep prioritizing, and keep improving. That's the best way to maintain a bright outlook.